Interview: Eamonn Bannon on the glory days of playing for Hearts, Chelsea and Dundee United

Eamonn Bannon in the garden of his guesthouse. Picture: Scott Louden
Eamonn Bannon in the garden of his guesthouse. Picture: Scott Louden
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It may still be pre-season for footballers, but it is high season for Eamonn Bannon, who has been welcoming residents at his B & B in the southside of Edinburgh for over 20 years.

The sky above the capital has still to flare with fireworks signalling the end of the opening Tattoo performance on the castle ramparts. It therefore appears positively indecent that competitive football returns as soon as next week when Hearts and Dundee United, two of Bannon’s old teams, clash in a Betfred Cup tie at Tynecastle.

Bannon won’t be there. Despite renewing – after a degree of deliberation – his Hearts season ticket, he’s not a fan of the Friday evening scheduling. He can’t be doing with lunchtime kick-offs either, whether it’s Sunday or Saturday. Football for him is 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and then a few pints in Leslie’s, the famed footballers’ drinking hole in Edinburgh’s Causewayside.

In any case, his Strathallan Guest House is currently bursting at the seams with guests, the majority of whom are none the wiser about the identity of the owner. There are no clues on the walls. Only what you’d expect to find in such an establishment: Colin Prior prints and photos of old Edinburgh rather than Bannon in full flight.

Americans, for example, will arrive on the doorstep and accept Bannon’s kind invitation to carry their suitcases to their room without so much as a thought that their belongings are being carted up the stairs by someone who became Hearts’ record transfer when he left to join Chelsea in January 1979.

Or that the man who will be cooking their breakfast the following morning twice singed Harald Schumacher’s hands at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986. They certainly won’t be aware of his early place in Hearts legend after he used his then thatched head – well, he had just turned 20 – against Arbroath to secure promotion for the Jambos at a time when the fans all agreed Eammon Bannon was magic, as the old terrace song had it.

All this and he didn’t even want to be a footballer. “I wanted to be a golfer,” Bannon, now 61, says as we sit in the dining room set for the following morning’s breakfast, when guests will drift in from 8am to tell him how they want their eggs done. “I had no intention of being a professional footballer. People find that hard to believe but I seriously thought: I am not good enough and it’s such an insecure life.

“Football and golf were my main sports. I very quickly realised I was not good enough at golf although that did not stop me wanting to be a professional golfer.”

This prospective PE student who stayed on at school until he was 18 to do his Highers was not going to waste time and energy doing menial chores around Tynecastle. While he accepts being at service now, since it’s part of the deal of running a guest house, he couldn’t see how cleaning older players’ boots was aiding his own personal development.

“Hearts said to me I would have to do groundstaff duties,” recalls Bannon. “I was like: ‘Well, forget the contract then, I am not interested’. I did not believe in all of that.

‘They said: ‘OK, forget the groundstaff stuff. You don’t have to do that’. I just thought it was demeaning. Sweeping the dressing rooms? See when these players come out and say oh cleaning so-and-so’s boots was really good grounding for me, what a load of rubbish. Sweeping the terrace? You are basically a slave for the club. How are you learning anything about football doing that? It was just cheap labour for the club.”

He already knew his own mind as well as his worth – as did the Hearts supporters before very long. But the association was over far too soon in their eyes. His £220,000 move to Chelsea in January 1979 kept the doors open at Tynecastle but left fans bereft. One leaving present was the aforementioned rare Bannon header at Gayfield that earned the club promotion back to the top flight in 1978.

“It was the weirdest thing,” he says. “I scored a goal that day I never got close to repeating in training or while playing. Things just happen. Even I was surprised the header went in. Donald Park took the corner from the left-hand side and I just went up at the corner of the six-yard box and glanced it on. I can still see the guy on the back post, Allan McKenzie – I actually went to PE college with him – and he jumped up and the ball went between the bar and his head, right in the top corner. I can still see his face.”

Bannon remembers team-mate Drew Busby stopping him in a corridor and telling him he was going to make the big time and that he was a lucky-so-and-so, because the new breed of player coming through would coin it in (they didn’t, which is why Bannon, like many of his peers from the 1980s, still has to work).

Bannon’s contemporaries were still too early and missed out on the 1990s boom years, when their own careers were winding down. The likes of Billy McKinlay, with whom Bannon played at Dundee United, were among the first to make life-changing moves to England. Bannon actually did the opposite – he moved from England back to Scotland for less money.

Geoff Hurst had taken charge of Chelsea after Danny Blanchflower walked out following criticism of him by Peter Osgood in a newspaper article. He quickly formed the view the young player Chelsea had reckoned would fill the gap left by Ray Wilkins’ imminent departure was not yet up to that task, though few were. Bannon recalls being pitched against Wilkins in training and being overwhelmed by how good he was. “You wished someone had come up to me and said: ‘Listen, this guy is the best you’ll play against,’” he says.

Hurst did not feel he had time to wait for Bannon to get up to speed. “He pulled me in: ‘I’ve had an enquiry from Dundee United. Are you interested?’ I said yes and off I popped.”

He had only just bought his first house in Walton-on-Thames, near where Chelsea trained at the time. “Looking back with fresh eyes I really was not money orientated,” he continues. “If I had an agent he would have slapped me so hard for even contemplating going to Dundee United. The money was a fraction of what I was on.”

As far as he recalls, he was on £440 a week at Chelsea plus bonuses. His basic weekly wage at Dundee United was £125. “It clearly was not a money move,” he says. “But at Dundee United it was another £100 an appearance and that brought it up to £225 and there were good bonuses. Obviously at Chelsea I was not getting any bonuses at all because I was not playing first-team football (under Hurst). It was £100 a point at Dundee United, so that brought it up again. It was all geared to playing – and winning.”

It was a system that reaped reward, almost immediately in the case of Bannon. His arrival felt like a significant piece in a jigsaw that was completed just a few weeks later at Dens Park in 1979 when Dundee United beat Aberdeen to win the League Cup, their first major trophy. They triumphed again in the same competition at the same stadium the following year, this time against their city rivals.

Indeed, his first three trophies were all captured on the same patch of turf across the road from Tannadice. He scored a penalty – or at least swept in left-footed from the rebound after Colin Kelly saved his original right-footed effort – when United won the Scottish title at the home of their greatest rivals. But his real foe lay even closer to home. It’s impossible to avoid discussing Jim McLean when reflecting at length on Bannon’s career.

Informed about a new play about McLean being premiered at the Dundee Rep early next year, he wonders who’s playing the lead role: “A Tasmanian devil?” He isn’t planning on attending. “No thanks – I had enough of the reality.”

Around midway through the interview, Bannon says something remarkable. He should have left Dundee United earlier. Really? How much earlier? “Ideally, after we won the league in ’83,” he says.

This, of course, would have meant missing out on an epic European Cup campaign and a run to the final of the Uefa Cup three years later. He remained at United for nearly ten years and three of his four children were born in the city. “It was waaaaaay longer than I’d like to have been there,” he says.

“We were not getting enough money,” he adds, bluntly. “The trouble was, when you went on Scotland trips, you spoke to players from other clubs. I remember rooming with Roy Aitken after we won the league and he asked what was our bonus? We had just pipped Celtic remember. I said: ‘£800 quid’. He said: ‘800 quid?!’ I said: ‘why, what would your bonus have been?’ He said: ‘£20,000. A man.’”

Bannon was in the peak years of what he calls his “earning capacity” yet was still earning a fraction some players, many of them inferior to him, were commanding. He gives McLean credit for turning him into a left-winger/midfielder, from where he scored perhaps his greatest goal – a slaloming run against Borussia Moenchengladbach in a memorable 5-0 win in 1981. But even then, he says, it was only because he was the only player in the side who was comfortable with his left foot.

“While he was a good coach, if I had not come across Jim McLean I can assure you I would still have been the same professional footballer,” says Bannon. “It is all from within. It is your own dedication, your own choices.”

He resolved to practise kicking with both feet after watching Bobby Charlton. “I consciously decided when I was eight or nine and it’s things like that that make the difference ten years later.” The diligence contributed to giving a working-class boy from The Inch a living.

“Any money I made in a football sense didn’t happen until coming back to Hearts (in 1988),” he says. “They were good payers.”

There was also a testimonial in September 1989, when Alex Ferguson agreed to bring a strong Manchester United to Tynecastle. He was always a fan of Bannon, who tended to excel against his Aberdeen sides. Ferguson drafted him into the Scotland squad following Jock Stein’s death and chose him in the starting XI for the aforementioned game at the Mexico World Cup against West Germany, when he twice came close to scoring while playing on the right of midfield (he wished it was the left, where he excelled at United, but could hardly grumble).

“The move back to Hearts I was desperate to do,” says Bannon. “I wanted to come back to Edinburgh, my kids were starting school. There were several different reasons.”

Even then it wasn’t easy. His contract was up but pre-Bosman, this didn’t mean an awful lot – particularly at Dundee United. The proposed move had to go to a tribunal. McLean wanted him to stay, despite everything. Bannon claims not to have said a word to McLean in his last four years at the club other than a cursory “good morning” if they passed each other in the corridor before training.

“There was no relationship, no chit chat , because you did not want to give him any ammunition he could use against you,” he explains. “Say you said: ‘I want Thursday off to go to my granny’s funeral’. He would cast that up to you on a Saturday about taking the day off. You basically did not ask him anything, I did not ask his opinion about anything, he did not ask mine.”

Alex MacDonald was everything McLean was not. But it still didn’t stop Bannon stating in a newspaper article that his sacking was not a surprise, since Hearts had stopped progressing. Chairman Wallace Mercer publicly thanked him for the show of support in a players’ meeting though that hadn’t been Bannon’s intention. He was just a realist.

Bannon adored Joe Jordan – “straight as an arrow” – even if he did prevent him leaving in 1992, when Bannon felt he had one more lucrative move in him. He was released the following summer by Sandy Clark. “I literally went to Sandy’s office then walked along to the boot room and walked out.” He could have walked all the way to his next destination – Easter Road.

He had already passed up one chance to sign for Hibs. “Alex Miller phoned me up and asked if I would fancy going to Hibs. I said: ‘Alex, I couldn’t, I’d get dog’s abuse!’”

He hadn’t grown up a Hearts fan – neither he nor his three elder brothers supported any team. But now he’s a Jambo to the extent he’s had a season ticket for the last two seasons and recently signed up for another campaign, even if the football’s not always as he aimed to play it.

“I was …reasonably happy to do so,” he says. “The behaviour of the fans around me has been perfect. I thought there’d be some madman screaming abuse at the players.”

What’s the little matter of one game for Hibs between friends? He played once for the other lot, against Motherwell. “I’m the quiz answer no one gets,” he says, referring to the list – a fairly length one now – of those who played for both clubs.

Few go direct from one to the other, as Bannon did. It received little fanfare since he was going to Hibs ostensibly as coach and only played that one first-team game to help out during a defensive crisis.

He returned to playing at Stenhousemuir, where he won the Challenge Cup with a victory over Dundee United, and had a stint as manager at Falkirk. In these VAR-fixated times the evidence football has long since lost its marbles is that Bannon hasn’t worked in the game since being sacked by Falkirk because a club official failed to check the rules about re-signing a player (former Dundee United team-mate John Clark) within 12 months.

Falkirk got a fine and Bannon began what’s turned into a 23-year exile from the game. Football’s loss is the hospitality industry’s gain.

Right on cue another satisfied customer from America comes in to retrieve the luggage he has left in the well-appointed dining room, where the cornice-fringed ceiling is high enough to accommodate a Hamish McAlpine goal-kick. He’s effusive about his stay, describing the guest house as “very elegant”. The phrase aptly describes Bannon the footballer, if only he’d seen him play. But then that was our privilege.